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On Backing Up the Truth with Power

Emmanuel Leutze

John Zmirak - published on 01/14/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Between a true vision of the good and State coercion--where’s the dividing line?

At what point in an argument is it right for me to pick a fight?  That’s the question that underlies the great debate between illiberal paternalists (left and right) and followers of the American classical liberal tradition.  In fact, most of the disputes in politics can be boiled down to this issue.  Which social, moral, and economic goods ought to be defended by police force and backed up by the threat of prison?

The debate over whether the State should use coercion to promote the Catholic faith and discourage other religions is one of a thousand such disputes — albeit one that Vatican II tried to settle in favor of freedom.  Those Catholics who reject Vatican II’s embrace of religious liberty should be aware that the Society of St. Pius X remains out of communion with the Church over this single issue.  The negotiations between that group and Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly broke down when the SSPX refused to budge on religious liberty and insisted that the position of Vatican II was not compatible with previous Church tradition.  If you agree with them, and think that a Church council, the subsequent Catechism, and dozens of statements by several popes represent a heresy, you really ought to follow your ideas’ consequences and align with the SSPX.  In a future article, I will address the question of how the teaching of Vatican II may be squared with — or may simply trump — previous papal statements on religious freedom.

But all of politics and social life is pervaded by this question: when should you call in the cops and try to threaten your neighbor with prison because his actions don’t conform to your vision of the good?  On any given issue (drug use, abortion, wage levels, pollution — fill in the blank), there are three possible judgments a person could make:

1. This is morally indifferent; the natural law doesn’t teach that one course of action or another is required.  You’re free to act as prudence tells you.

2. There is a right course of action here, and as a matter of justice and the common good, the State must be willing to enforce that course of action and punish those who act otherwise.  

3. There is a right course of action here, and a wrong one.  But getting the State involved would be imprudent because it would violate other goods that are too important.

Examples of issues that fit the first category are easy to think of.  Should a given couple get married now, or wait a year until they have built up more savings?  Should you direct your charity toward contemplative nuns or crisis pregnancy shelters?  Should Billy go to graduate school, or join the army?  And so on.  Large swathes of life fall into this category, which we might label “neutral.”  Obviously, no one but a totalitarian would wish to politicize decisions such as these.

Problems arise when we try to distinguish what belongs in category 2 from what really belongs in category 3.  The great divide between illiberal, paternalistic governments (feudal, theocratic, or socialist) and free governments rests on how we routinely settle this question.  Do we assume as a matter of course that the State ought to promote the good by using its coercive power to seize our property and march us at gunpoint to prison?  Or do we see the use of coercive power as a necessary evil, and try to minimize it as much as possible?  

While the State might still exist even absent the Fall of man, it is only because of the Fall that it requires the use of violence, both to prevent and correct injustices and to wage war in self-defense.  Catholic just war teaching insists that the use of violence by the State is a last resort, when every other means to resolve a conflict has failed.  Of course, many rulers — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — routinely violated this teaching over the centuries, waging wars they insisted were “just” for trivial or arbitrary reasons, and in ways that failed to respect the rights of unarmed civilians.

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PoliticsReligious Freedom
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